This is the first in a series of blogs by anonymous bloggers. The only "requirement" was I asked that the blog be focused on a "personal struggle". Here is Anonymous #1:
I’m not sure how old I was when I became the parent. 16? 20? Definitely by 25. The role reversal that my father and I experienced felt logical and inevitable. I continued to grow and mature into a responsible young adult, while he languished in the emotional paralysis that comes from decades of untreated depression. Parenting my father became (and remains) a difficult and emotionally draining task, somewhere between a burden and a filial duty.
Have you ever met a Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) in which past trauma cripples the psyche? My father shares much in common with these poor souls, although his trauma didn’t come from war but rather from an abusive childhood. Those who suffer from PTSD often experience depression, anxiety, and paranoia (or even flashbacks); they have great difficulty organizing their thoughts or managing their lives; and they often turn to substance abuse or other forms of escape to cover the pain or the fill the void.
In this blog entry, I wish to focus specifically on the issue of life management—or in this case, life mismanagement. I could, of course, write about my father’s substance abuse or his tragic childhood, but it is his poor life choices—his childlike existence; his inability to parent himself—that affects me most directly and which is the reason behind our gradual role reversal.
Becoming my parent’s parent produced a range of emotions and reactions. I don’t want to assume that others necessarily share my feelings, although my anecdotal data shows a surprising commonality of opinion. The main thing that I feel is deep-seated resentment. Isn’t my father supposed to be there for me? Why am I sending him money? Why am I talking to his social worker? Why can’t he pronounce my girlfriend’s name correctly (we’ve been dating for over five years)?
Deep down, I feel like I shouldn’t have to be taking care of my father—as least not yet. It’s not like he’s 85 and just broke his hip. He’s in his mid-60s and should be—could be—a functional, relatively happy adult who cares for himself and makes wise life decisions.
The second thing that I feel is jealousy. Of whom, you might ask? Of all the other young adults out there who have supportive and high-functioning parents. Of all the people whose parental relationships are full of joy and mutual respect and love. Instead, my relationship with my dad is mainly a one-way street: I look after his feelings, I support him. The reality is that he no longer has the emotional tools to be a good father.
Can I blame him for that? I suppose the third thing I feel is confusion. Is this love? Am I angry? How am I supposed to feel about the fact that I dread seeing him in person? On the one hand, I can’t blame him for suffering from depression. He had a legitimately messed up childhood in the home of hard-scrabbled European immigrants. On the other hand, he never truly committed to psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs, and in his case, both are definitely needed.
So it’s not so much his condition that is bothersome but rather his lack of willingness to deal with his own problems in a mature way.
A recent interaction will illustrate this point. The last time he visited me, he had great difficulty in hearing me (or anyone) speak. His hearing has been on the decline for years—he used to work in an extremely loud engine room and saw Led Zeppelin live fourteen(!) times—but it’s become markedly worse in recent months. So I confronted him about it in the gentlest of terms. “Have you considered getting your ears checked? You know they have great hearing aids these days that are hardly noticeable.”
“Leave me alone,” he says. “Nothing’s wrong with my hearing.”
The only way to cope with a depressed and difficult parent is to set limits on the character and nature of your interactions. Creating boundaries for a parent feels a lot like parenting a small child. The similarities are many even if the content differs. Instead of limiting the amount of computer time or sugary snacks, you limit yourself from “loaning” money or committing unreasonable amounts of time to solving basic life issues.
But the most important limit to set is emotional. I had to learn how to differentiate my own emotions (and problems) from those of my father's. In some ways, I needed to become hardened; I needed to build a small fortress around my heart; I needed to become detached and business-like, lest he drag me down to his level.
In the end, the best way to cope with a difficult parent is to take care of yourself first and foremost. Don’t lose sight of your own emotional needs. It’s a bit like the safety warnings that you hear on commercial flights: “In case of an emergency, please fasten your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”
Otherwise, you can’t breathe.
Thank you to Anonymous #1 for your heart-felt, honest, thoughtful, and beautifully written piece.
If you are interested in writing a piece for this series, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.